Knowing the signs of a heart attack and acting quickly saved woman’s life
photo by: Jeff Burkhead
Donna Oleson, age 70, has always led an active life — including nearly two decades as an aerobics instructor, serving as the Eudora city clerk for 25 years and working for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center as an administrative assistant for another decade.
Even after she decided to retire from Bert Nash in 2022, she didn’t sit still for long. She decided to go back to work, this time as a paraprofessional at Eudora Elementary School.
Only a few weeks into the job, Oleson caught COVID-19. She recovered and was soon back at work — but she noticed she was tired all the time.
Oleson mentioned the exhaustion to her doctor, but since she wasn’t having any other symptoms, the doctor said it was normal given her age and her active lifestyle.
But on a Saturday afternoon in September, that all changed.
“I’d been cleaning the living room, and I remember thinking I was tired, and I should sit down,” she said. “I dozed off, and when I woke, I knew something wasn’t quite right.”
Oleson’s feeling of unease turned out to be warranted. She began to vomit and felt intense chest pain, and she banged on the wall to get her granddaughter’s attention and told her she thought she was having a heart attack. When the paramedics arrived, they told Oleson she was right.
“They loaded me in the ambulance and put nitroglycerin under my tongue,” she said. “I remember telling them that it hurt so badly, but that’s it until I got to the hospital and found out I’d flat-lined, and they had to perform CPR.”
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. One person dies every 34 seconds from heart disease.
Not everyone who has a heart attack has the same types of symptoms that Oleson had — and some people may not even realize what’s happening. All of these symptoms are classic indicators of a heart attack:
• Chest pain or discomfort
• Feeling weak, lightheaded or faint
• Pain in the jaw, neck or back
• Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders
• Shortness of breath
Dr. Elizabeth Guastello a cardiologist with Cardiovascular Specialists of Lawrence, said that other symptoms can occur, such as nausea, vomiting, sweating or a flu-like sensation. Most of the time, these more unusual symptoms occur in female patients.
“If you feel like you’ve got an elephant sitting on your chest, pain radiating down your arm or jaw pain, it’s vital that you get checked out immediately,” Guastello said. “Call 911 and get to the emergency room. Time is heart muscle.”
Even if your only symptom is pain in your arm, Guastello said it can still indicate a heart attack. Some people have arm pain or heaviness as their main symptom.
“If our heart is unhappy and isn’t getting enough oxygenated blood, it’s trying to communicate that to us,” she said. “What I’m looking for is arm heaviness or chest pressure when you’re walking or doing something that requires exertion. If you’re having shoulder or arm pain that hurts when you’re just rotating it around, that’s just your arm.”
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Oleson might not seem like the kind of person who would be susceptible to a heart attack. She has never been a drinker or a smoker and has always exercised regularly. But there was one thing stacking the deck against her — a family history of heart disease.
“Both of my parents died from heart issues,” she said. “My mom passed within the week of her 66th birthday, and my dad when he was 68. Both of them had previously had bypass surgery.”
Family history and genetics can play a significant role in your potential for developing heart disease or having a heart attack. Guastello said that while not everyone who has a family history of cardiac issues develops problems, it can be more likely.
“We see other people who don’t have any risk factors. If your father had a heart attack at 45, it can be a strong indicator for you as well,” Guastello said. “It’s important to remember that just because it happened to them doesn’t mean that it will happen to you.”
If you have concerns about your heart health, Guastello said it’s important to know your weight, cholesterol level, blood pressure and whether or not you have diabetes. These risk factors can lead to increased plaque in your cardiovascular system, which in turn can lead to heart disease and heart attacks.
“If you have risk factors, it’s important to see your doctor,” she said. “Your primary care provider can help you get those numbers where they need to be.”
Another tool available to assess your heart health is a coronary calcium score. Guastello said this procedure involves a CT scan to look for calcium in the arteries. Coronary calcium scores are done at both the LMH Health Main Campus and West Campus. The test costs about $60 and isn’t usually covered by insurance, and Guastello recommends asking your primary care provider about it.
“If you score a zero on the test, there isn’t any plaque present, and that can provide you with peace of mind,” she explained. “Scores of one or greater indicate that you’ve got coronary artery disease, and then we can begin treating you appropriately.”
While not all heart attacks are preventable, you can lower your risk by adopting healthier habits.
“It’s important to be physically active and move more,” Guastello said. “Staying at a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet will also help to reduce your risk. And if you smoke, now is the time to quit.”
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For Oleson, the decision to call paramedics instead of having her granddaughter drive to the hospital saved her life. Not only had she flat-lined in the ambulance, Oleson had a total blockage of one artery and another was 90% occluded.
“Donna had what you might know as a widow maker,” Guastello said. “The proximal left anterior descending artery supplies blood to the front of the heart. In the past — before coronary intervention — someone would usually die, which is how it got the name.”
Oleson had a stent placed in one artery immediately, followed by a second one three days later. After spending a few days in the hospital, she went home to begin outpatient treatment and rehab.
Looking back on her ordeal, Oleson said “it’s been quite a year.”
“I’m so lucky to have survived and to have received the outstanding care that I did at LMH Health,” she said. “They took great care of me.”
— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.